Achim Steiner wants to do for the Sustainable Development Goals what he helped do for renewable energy.
But whereas clean energy investments in the last 15 years have grown to about $300 billion a year, Steiner wants ‘SDG investing’ to reach $2.5 trillion a year, and much more quickly.
As chief of the United Nations Development Programme, Steiner has resident coordinators in more than 170 countries and a staff of 17,000. They are charged with bringing together not only other UN agencies, but government ministries and agencies, NGOs and private investors. The Sustainable Development Goals may be global, but progress will come country by country.
Steiner was recruited back to the UN last year because of his success helping countries invest in clean technologies and renewable energy as head of the UN Environment Programme from 2006 to 2016.
“The (clean-energy) patents were in drawers for decades,” Steiner said in an interview on the sidelines of last fall’s Social Capital Markets, or SOCAP, conference in San Francisco. “It was when public policy, on behalf of our societies, took the decision that we have to make a transition, that suddenly the opportunities for investment arose and the private sector and impact investment has created truly a transformation of our energy systems.”
Markets of Tomorrow
To replicate that pattern, the UNDP’s new plan identifies six “signature solutions” under the Sustainable Development goals that could deliver significant impact on poverty, governance, energy access, gender equality, resilience and environmental sustainability.
The solutions bridge several of the 17 goals so countries — and investors — can realize multiple benefits, and avert catastrophic risks.
“In the beginning of the 21st, the social and environment dimensions are haunting us, in part because of the failures we did not recognize soon enough,” Steiner says. “Revolutions happen. Planetary challenges happen. The economy of the 21st century, has to deliver prosperity, but also equity in outcomes and opportunities, and a sustainability pathway. We can’t use this planet like a mining operation.”
Challenges in transportation, urbanization, agriculture, food waste and more create huge investment opportunities, he says.
“That is where business finds the SDGs very interesting. There is a global marketplace out there,” he says. “The markets of tomorrow are defined by the SDGs, because they are focused on the challenges that, together with the business world, we can turn into solutions, and therefore markets for technology, for investment, for new business models.”
Seen that way, the estimated $2.5 trillion annual “gap” in financing for the global goals becomes an opportunity for the more than $300 trillion in private wealth that is seeking both opportunity and risk-reduction. “As we know, there are people all over the world sitting on enormous mountains of cash, wanting to invest and not finding the right opportunities,” Steiner says. “If we can incentivize these investments, we open up channels for enormous funding being directed to these solutions.”
That’s the opportunity that lured Steiner back to the UN from a cozy perch at Oxford University. The 56-year-old native of Brazil, who was raised by German parents, had paid his dues in public service. Before his decade at UNEP, he led the UN office in Nairobi, served as director-general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and was secretary general of the World Commission on Dams.
As the third-ranking official in the UN hierarchy, he has sought to align UNDP with Secretary General António Guterres’ reform plans. The UNDP’s new plan aims to accelerate partnerships with the private sector and impact investors in order to move away from a short term, donor-funded mindset and toward sustainable financing solutions.
The new strategic plan emphasizes future-focused, cross-cutting development initiatives. The agency hopes to increase its outlay over the four years from about $23 billion to $25 billion.
“The question is can investment, the wealth we have accumulated, be invested in tomorrow’s economy that provide solutions to some of these problems?” he asks. “Or do we simply invest in the 20th century economy, in energy technology, mobility, concepts for urban living and urbanization?”
“That is where the SDGs become an enabler to draw capital, align our capital to invest, which is enormous, unprecedented in the history of humanity today, with the development outcomes we wish to have, for our children, our communities, our nations.”